Today begins the season of Advent. For me, Advent is the most wonderful time of the liturgical season. With all the hustle and bustle of Christmas, Advent reminds us to always keep the purpose and reason behind Christmas in the forefront of our minds.
One small way this is accomplished by Christians is the nativity scene put up in the home. A gentle reminder that Christ’s birth should be our focus. So with Advent beginning today, I thought a brief reflection on the origin of the crib would be appropriate.
It dates back to the 13th century in Italy, and my favorite Saint, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, or has he would forever be known, St. Francis.
Francis had recently returned from visiting the Holy Land where he had venerated Jesus’s traditional birthplace. In 1223, as Christmas neared, St. Francis found himself in the town of Greccio, Italy. There lived in that town a man by the name of Giovanni Velitta. Francis called upon John about two weeks before Christmas and said to him, “If you desire that we should celebrate this year’s Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem and how He was bedded in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox. I want to see all of this with my own eyes.”
Signor Velitta brought everything St. Francis needed to create his Nativity scene in the forest on the outskirts of the village. St. Francis sought and received permission from the Pope to create his scene. He arrived in the forest and got to work creating the scene.
On Christmas night, the villagers of Greccio flocked to the scene out in the forest. They carried candles and torches to light the night and scene. The crib had been set up inside a small cave in the forest. There was a manger, hay, a donkey and an ass, and humans in the role of the biblical figures.
The scene was described by St. Bonaventure, a contemporary of Francis. He said that the villagers and friars crowded around the scene, as mass was led by a priest (Francis was a deacon, not a priest.) He writes, “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”
What was most written about by biographers was the sermon given by Francis that night. Thomas of Celano, another contemporary, writes: “The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness….He sang the Gospel in a sonorous voice, a clear and sonorous voice, inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing about and spoke charming words concerning the birth of the poor King, and the little town of Bethlehem.”
From that event in the forest of Greccio, the idea of a crib spread all over the Christian World, and soon cribs were found in churches, and most importantly, people’s homes.
St. Francis, with his unbridled devotion to the poor and to poverty, I believe wanted to use the crib as a reminder to all of how Jesus came into the world; born in a simple food trough for animals. In today’s world, the crib not only reminds us of that, but it also assures that we remember in the crazy, busy, commercialized world what Christmas is all about.
Prima Donna of the Opera
All names for the great Greek/American Soprano, Maria Callas.
Maria owned the opera stage in the 1950s, singing all over the World including at the Metropolitan and La Scala in Milan.
Often paired on stage and record with the tenor, Giuseppe di Stefano, Callas brought forth from the music pure emotion and pathos.
A thought hit me just the other day. There are people in this world who have not heard or seen her sing one note.
In today’s busy world, take a three-minute break and watch this clip from Puccini’s Tosca. The performance is from Covent Garden in London. The year is 1964. Franco Zeffirelli, the great movie and opera director, was the stage director for this performance.
An opera singer can be put into two simple categories. The first one hits all the notes, sings a perfect line, and the technique is spot on. In other words, a wonderful singer, but all rather boring and bland. The other type of singer exposes their very soul on the stage. It’s all emotion and power. That’s an exciting singer. That’s Maria Callas.
You see her very being. Her performance is a window into her soul. What a talent.
Author of Tempesta’s Dream and A Song for Bellafortuna
Love it or hate it, Literary Agents are the gatekeepers of the the publishing world. An agent is the person who deems whether or not your manuscript is ready for publication and, this is a big one, if the agent thinks its sellable.
What does sellable mean in this context? I have come to learn that it means in the agent’s mind is their an Editor out there at a publishing house who they deal with who would take on this project. Period end of story. Agents know what those Editors like and what they are looking for and thus, if your work fits that mold, bam, you might just get picked up by an agent. It’s very subjective and your little manuscript is just one of hundreads that the agent received that week. Is it hard? Yes it is.
So, of course, the key is getting your work to rise above the rest. How is that done? A well written, catchy, query letter. I know what you are asking at this point. What the hell is a query letter?
A query letter is a few paragraphs describing the work, and a little bit about your writing career. That’s it. Usually no longer than a page and just a few paragraphs. That query letter, although short, is the key to the kingdom. Somehow, someway, within those first few sentences you must write something so compelling that the agent desires to keep reading and if lucky enough, likes it so much that they then request that you send to them the manuscript.
That’s a lot of pressure for the person writing a query letter. You have worked months, perhaps years, on the manuscript, yet it all comes down to this query letter. Like I said, love it or hate it, that’s the rules of the game.
So, here are my few tips for writers out there.
- Make sure you research the agent and what they are looking for. For example, if an agent only likes books about 14th century England, you really don’t want to send a query letter to that agent your story about the zombie apocalypse in 2017.
- It’s hard to find an agent. You will be rejected, often. Keep in mind that a lot of very successful writers were rejected by agents. Keep trying.
- All agents know accept the query letter by email. Makes rue your direct your email to the correct agent and that you spell their name right.
- Follow their submission guidelines which can be found on the literary agent websites. Some agents want a few pages of the manuscript sent with the query letter. You must abide by their rules. Remember, it’s their game and it’s their rules.
- A legitimate agent does not charge a fee to read your material. They are only paid on the commission they receive if they are able to sell your work. Do not deal with agents wanting you to pay them anything up front.
- If an agent calls you to enter into an agreement to represent you, please make sure you have a great bottle of wine to celebrate. But, keep in mind, that’s only step one. A big step, but only step one. Step two is the agent selling the work to an editor.
So, as you can see, the query letter begins this whole process. Trust me, the day an agent calls you and says that love your work and want to represent it, is a day you will not forget.
In closing, I wanted to give to you an example of a query letter. Below is my query letter for A Song for Bellafortuna, my second novel. This query letter got a lot of responses from agents to see the work and it also landed me an agent. So, before letting you review it, let me just say that I wish you the best of luck in your writing career.
Query for A Song for Bellafortuna
Considering the way life is lived today, I will tell you of a time and place where the people lived their lives with a heroic passion for decency. Bellafortuna, Sicily was such a place and the setting of my historical novel, A Song for Bellafortuna.
The manuscript was selected as a short list Finalist in the William Faulkner Literary Competition held in conjunction with the Words and Music Festival in New Orleans.
John Biguenet, author of Oyster and The Torturer’s Apprentice and a distinguished English Professor at Loyola has read the manuscript and declared that it is an inspiring story of a Sicilian village threatened by commerce but saved by opera. He said it is a quiet, reflective, and meditative work. It reminds him of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
In 1908, the great Neapolitan opera tenor, Enrico Caruso, learned that his wife had run off with his chauffeur, leaving him to care for his two children. Both humiliated and devastated at his loss, Caruso traveled from Florence to Sicily and Tunis to get away from the crush of reporters hounding him over the news. I used that historical trip as the impetus behind my story.
For years, Bellafortuna was a great producer of wine and olive oil. However, with the arrival of the Vasaio family, production over time is gradually lost and the villagers soon find themselves in debt to the very powerful Vasaio family, who acquires the villagers’ harvest and sells the harvests to other wineries and olive presses throughout Italy .
However, one family in the village, the Sanguinettis, remained outside the control of the Vasaios. But the reason for this blessing haunted Antonio Sanguinetti every day of his life. His father had worked closely with the Vasaios, aiding them in keeping the other villagers in debt. Since then, Antonio lives his life trying to overcome what his father had done. Antonio’s own son, Giuseppe Sanguinetti, follows through with his father’s mission; to rid the village of the Vasaios, bring freedom to the villagers, and once again produce the wine and olive oil that had brought glory to the village a long time ago.
With the great opera composer Giuseppe Verdi’s choral song of freedom from Nabucco, ‘Va, pensiero’, as their rallying cry, the villagers slowly come together and realize that through music and the love and kindness of the Sanguinettis, there could be a better life in the village.
A chance meeting with Enrico Caruso many years before by Giuseppe Sanguinetti leads to a wager with the powerful Vasaio family that if Caruso would ever sing in the village, then the villagers would achieve freedom.
So, in 1908, when Caruso flees to Palermo , Sicily , the entire village of Bellafortuna mobilizes to try to convince the great tenor to sing in Bellafortuna and bring them freedom from the Vasaios. The end of the story is poignant and suspenseful. Will Caruso come or will the villagers hatch a plan of their own to bring freedom to their village?
Cavaliere Ufficiale Aldo Mancusi, President of the Enrico Caruso Museum of America with regard to my manuscript has stated that, “The book was a joy to read. It is a wonderful story, told in a magical way.”
I am an attorney in New Orleans and an author. My first novel, Tempesta’s Dream, was named as an Amazon best seller and won the Pinnacle Award in Historical Fiction. A Song for Bellafortuna is a tribute to all of my Sicilian ancestors.
I hope you find this brief description engaging and such that you would like to see the work. The manuscript is finished and presently is about 286 pages or 80,000 words.
Thank you for your time and your consideration.
One of my grandmother’s favorite movies was The Student Prince. A wonderful musical about a prince who falls in love with a bar maid in Hidelberg Germany.
That film introduced me to the voice of Mario Lanza, the great American tenor, which in turn led me to a lifelong love of opera.
The history behind the making of the film is quite interesting.
Mario Lanza was hired to play the main lead. He first went into the studio and recorded the soundtrack – which rumor has it he cut all the songs in one take.
On the very first day of filming, he got into a spat with the director who felt that his singing on the tracks and his expressiveness on film was too over the top – to emotional. More operatic, than Broadway. Lanza walked off the set and quit the film that day. (The belief that he was sacked because of being overweight is simply not true and was created by MGM to disparage him)
MGM’s contract allowed the use of Lanza’s voice for the film even though he had quit the production. They hired the British actor, Edmund Purdom, to lip sync to Mario’s voice. He truly does a remarkable job in the film. But it is Lanza’s voice that makes this move soar. As Purdom recalled years later, “It was enough to make you sweat, just listening to that voice.”
In what must have been satisfying to Lanza, upon release of the film and a record of the songs, the record was much more of a success than the film.
Here is a clip from the movie of the great song – Beloved. My God – what a voice.
If you have the chance, watch this movie and be blown away at a once in a lifetime voice.
Author of Temepsta’s Dream and A. Song for Bellafortuna
Salvatore Lupo was the owner of Central Grocery in New Orleans. He catered to the large Sicilian-American immigrant population who settled in and worked around the French Quarter. Salvatore Lupo is best known as the creator of the muffuletta
Marie Lupo Tusa, daughter of the Central Grocery’s founder, tells the story of the sandwich’s origin in her 1980 cookbook, Marie’s Melting Pot:
One of the most interesting aspects of my father’s grocery is his unique creation, the muffuletta sandwich. The muffuletta was created in the early 1900’s when the Farmers’ Market was in the same area as the grocery. Most of the farmers who sold their produce there were Sicilian. Everyday they used to come of my father’s grocery for lunch.
They would order some salami, some ham, a piece of cheese, a little olive salad, and either long braided Italian bread or round muffuletta bread. In typical Sicilian fashion, they ate everything separately. The farmers used to sit on crates or barrels and try to eat while precariously balancing their small trays covered with food on their knees. My father suggested that it would be easier for the farmers if he cut the bread and put everything on it like a sandwich; even if it was not typical Sicilian fashion. He experimented and found that the ticker, braided Italian bread was too hard to bite but the softer round muffuletta was ideal for his sandwich. In very little time, the farmers came to merely ask for a “muffuletta” for their lunch.
For a city known for its food, it’s only fitting that for Sicilian-Americans, New Orleans is home to one of their most iconic sandwiches.
New Orleans Author
This past weekend I escaped New Orleans and all the Hurricane Nate drama and attended a family wedding in Atlanta. This was my wife’s family. It’s amazing when you get married and how your wife’s family becomes your family.
The Italians were spot on – family is the one thing that always matters.
Here is a photo from the event with my family.
Hopelessness. Fear. Anxiety.
To those poor people who have suffered massive losses as the result of Hurricane Harvey, our prayers and thoughts are with you.
As an individual whose family lost our home in Hurricane Katrina here in New Orleans, my mind is awash with those painful memories of the past. However, having gone through it, I will tell you it does get better. Time marches on. You will deal with FEMA, your insurance company and adjuster, but soon there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Keep plodding and look forward to the day when you can look back to this time of your life, hold your spouse’s hand, and say “We made it together, and are better for it.”
God be with you and Texas.
New Orleans, LA
The year is 1902.
We are in Milan, Italy.
The gramophone is in its infancy.
The Gramophone & Typewriter Company thought that in order for the recording industry to take off, it needed a few top-notch singers under contract to record. But, almost every singer that the company approached refused.
Then, by pure luck, it all changed.
Fred Gaisberg, a recording technician for the company, heard a young rising tenor make a sensation at La Scala in Franchetti’s now forgotten opera, Germania.
Gaisberg immediately inquired if the young singer would be interested in making a recording. The singer agreed.
However, when Gaisberg informed his bosses, they thought the costs to high and cabled him to not move forward. In a move that the company would later thank Gaisberg for the rest of his life, he disregarded the cable and on April 11, 1902, he transformed his suite on the 3rd floor of the Grand Hotel in Milan into a recording studio. He had a piano brought in for Salvatore Cottone to accompany the singer. For two hours, the singer’s voice was put on disc for the first time. He made ten sides.
So who was the young singer? Enrico Caruso, who would become probably the most famous opera tenor of them all.
Caruso even provided a sketch of himself that day.
Of those ten sides recorded that day, one aria put the gramphone on a path to unmeasured success. The aria, Vesti la Giubba from Pagliacci became a best seller.
Here is that recording made that afternoon in the hotel.
What a glorious sound. No wonder other singers starting running to be recorded. The record industry was born.
This month is the 96th year since the passing of the great Enrico Caruso.
Author of A Song for Bellafortuna and Tempesta’s Dream
On the East coast of Sicily sits the ancient port city of Catania. One of its most famous residents was the opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini – the creator of some of the most beloved bel canto operas.
Catania is also known for probably one of the most famous Sicilian dishes – Pasta alla Norma. A simple dish made with pasta, tomotes, eggplant, ricotta cheese, basil and of course, Sicilian olive oil.
The story goes that Bellini loved the dish so much, it was eventually named after his most famous opera, Norma.
If you are looking for one of the iconic dishes of the Sicilian cuisine, look no further than Pasta alla Norma.
Author of Italian Historical Fiction Novels
While doing a little research for an idea for a novel that takes place during WWII, I came across the story of Operation Mincemeat. If you have never heard of this story be prepared for one amazing story.
After the Allies defeated the vaulted German Africa corps in WWII, they soon set their sites on Europe and in particular, Sicily. Control of Sicily would open the Mediterranean to Allied shipping and allow the invasion of continental Europe. Planning for Operation Husky and the invasion of Sicily began. The problem for the Allies was the belief that the Germans knew Sicily would be where the invasion would occur. As Churchill commented: “Everyone but a bloody fool would know that it’s Sicily.”
But, if the Allies could deceive the Germans and make them think the attack was actually going to take place in Greece, then the Germans might divert some significant part of their forces, which would help the invasion succeed. But how to create such a diversion.
Enter Ian Fleming.
Yes, that Ian Fleming. The man who would eventually write the James Bond novels. Ian Fleming, in the late 1930s, was a young assistant to the head of British Naval Intelligence. He came upon a mystery novel entitled, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (1937) by Sir Basil Thomson. Fleming was transfixed by the premise of novel. A body is found whose identity, reconstructed from his personal effects, turns out to be a complete fabrication. In 1939, Fleming was asked to suggest numerous devices to deceive the Germans, one of which included the Thomson’s premise: a corpse carrying fabricated documents would be dropped by parachute on a German-occupied coast.
When the British began to lay out a plan of deception, they remembered Ian Fleming’s idea. Two Brits in particular, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu and Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, came up with a plan. Instead of a parachuted corpse, they would use the ruse of an Officer who washes up on a beach following his death by drowning in a plane crash at sea, with fabricated papers alleging Greece as the invasion location. The hard part was now to find a body that could not only trick the Germans, but also would have no family members asking questions or looking for their loved one. A British pathologist advised them that the best chance of deceiving the Germans with a pre-deceased corpse lay in using one that had died of pneumonia, which would produce effects sufficiently consistent with death by drowning. Finding a suitable corpse proved almost insurmountable.
But then a Welsh, homeless tramp, Glyndwr Michael, died from ingesting rat poison, without any known relatives. The rat poison mirrored the effects of pneumonia. Montagu and Cholmondeley had their body.
Montage and Cholmondeley transporting the body
The body was quickly put on ice. The Brits knew they had three months to act before the body would decompose too badly to use. Now the story telling began. Like great novel witers, they began to create the life story of Major William Martin.
Gleyndwr Michael – or his corpse to be more correct – became a major in the Royal Marines named William Martin. An entire life was fabricated for Major Martin. Letters from his father, bank manager and girlfriend, theater ticket stubs, a wallet, outstanding bills, various forms of identification, and so on were all forged with great care and put on his person. He even had a picture of his girlfriend. “Pam” – who in reality was a young MI5 clerk. A death notice was put in the English paper to make it all look authentic.
“Fake ID for WILLIAM MARTIN”
“Fake Death Notice”
On top of the personal effects, came the whole reason for the deception. Fabricated letters written and signed by the Britsih high command addressed to senior allied commanders in North Africa, were placed in a briefcase attached by a chain to “Major Martin.” The letters discussed in detail an upcoming invasion of Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily being a decoy target.
On April 19, 1943, under the codename Operation Mincemeat, plans kicked into action. It was time to put Major Martin out ot sea to hopefully be found by the Germans. The body of Major William Martin was loaded on board the HMS Seraph, a British submarine. In the early morning of April 30th, she arrived at a point about a mile off the coast of Spain, near the town of Huelva. Seraph surfaced. The crew fitted “Major Martin” with a life jacket, and attached his briefcase with the papers.
“Major William Martin”
The Captain of the Seraph read Psalm 39, and then the body was gently pushed into the sea where the tide would bring it ashore.
Half a mile to the south, a rubber dinghy was thrown overboard to provide additional ‘evidence’ of a plane crash. The body was found at around 9:30 by a local fisherman, José Antonio Rey Maria, and was taken to Huelva and turned over to the local military, and as thought would happen by the Allies, who turned everything over to the Nazis in Spain.
The Nazis copied all the papers and then returned the original papers and the body back to Britain. With copies of the papers enroute to Berlin, the body of Major William Martin was buried, with full military honors, at a cemetery in Huelva, Spain.
Meanwhile, when the British received the original papers back, it was obvious they had been opened. A wire was sent to Churchill: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”
In possession of the copied papers, Adolf Hitler became convinced of the veracity of the bogus documents, and insisted that any attack against Sicily would be a feint, with the real invasion taken place in Greece. He ordered the majority of his troops to defend Greece, pulling his forces from Sicily. The renowned general Erwin Rommel was sent to Greece to assume overall command. Operation Mincemeat was an overwhelming success.
On July 9th, the Allies invaded Sicily in Operation Husky. The Allies stormed through Sicily, meeting only minimal resistance. Major William Martin had won the day.
It was not until 1953 that the story of Operation Mincemeat was finally revealed in the book called The Man Who Never Was.
A film of the same name was made in 1956.
The gravestone reads, “William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales.” The Latin phrase, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori. RIP, translates as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
It was not until 1998 that the British Government revealed Michael’s true identity. At that point, the gravestone was amended to read, “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM.” The grave is a fitting tribute to Glyndwr Michael and his alternate identity; Major William Martin: the man who never was.
Italian Historical Fiction Author